Despite the anti-gay themes that prevailed in our education, in the community, and from our faculty, dozens of St. Raphael alumni identify as LGBTQ. This population, which has spread out across the country, proves that queer identity is an unshakeable force of nature.

By Ava O’Malley 

On Wednesday, March 31st, as my plane taxied at O’Hare International Airport, I switched airplane mode off on my phone. I arrived in Chicago after spending Memorial Day weekend visiting my hometown, a suburb on the far West Side of Cleveland. While I watched the passengers around me shuffle up the aisle, text messages that I missed while airborne populated my inbox.

I had a new message in “Forever Triad,” a group chat made up of Kim,* Paul, and myself, best friends from Catholic grade school. Paul had sent a link to a news article, and the thumbnail image displayed a photo of St. Raphael Parish’s front sign. Paul, Kim and I were students at St. Raphael’s School for nine years, from kindergarten to eighth grade. The three of us shared complicated emotions about our time at the school– thankful for the friendships we had fortified with one another there, but cynical of the education and discipline we received.

The article title, “Bay Village priest faces backlash after he discusses LGBTQ controversy during Sunday service,” made my heart race with anxiety.

The article outlined the events of Sunday, May 28th, in which Fr. Tim Gareau’s anti-LGBTQ Pentecost homily was challenged by Avery Arden, a queer, trans person in the congregation. Angry parishioners escorted Arden from the lectern. Some folks followed Arden out in solidarity, but one enraged parishioner followed them outside with violent intentions, and was later arrested.

Afterwards, cuts of the livestreamed service went viral on TikTok and Twitter.

“It just burns a hole in my heart,” Gareau says, shaking a clenched fist on camera.

Gareau was referring to the partnership between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an organization queer and transgender activists who are committed to “community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment.”

Some of the Sisters, who are active in cities worldwide, perform in drag to raise money for charity, sometimes incorporating Catholic imagery and attire. The Sisters refer to these provocations as “(using) humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency, and guilt that chain the human spirit.”

In May, Christians protested the Los Angeles Dodgers for honoring the Los Angeles branch of Sisters at their 10th Annual Pride Night by giving them the community hero award. Gareau refused to name the Order directly, stating that he “did not want to give them that much credit.”

“It angers me and embitters me– and it should you. You should feel that sting, and we should fight against it,” Gareau said in his homily. “I want to cry.”

In a one-minute TikTok that went viral on Twitter, parishioners are shown applauding as Gareau ends the homily and proceeds with Mass.

As I watched the video, a sinkhole opened in my stomach. It was the first time I had heard Gareau’s voice in several years. When I was a student at St. Raphael’s, I had an overwhelmingly positive impression of the pastor, as much of his homilies in my memory, spoken in his emphatic and unique tone, were centered on love, unity, compassion, and acts of kindness.

As a child, I felt safe with Gareau, who offered a serene air of Christ-like gentleness in a school where my classmates and I witnessed many of the adults act short tempered, cruel, and suspicious towards children. To hear the person who gave me, a queer woman, my first sacraments, speak hatefully about my community filled me with a wash of emotions that boiled down to dread. Although I have not identified as a Catholic in over a decade, the last shreds of sentimental memory I had of my time in the church dissolved.

The video cuts to Arden, now speaking at the lectern. “I just want to say that queer and trans people also carry the Holy Spirit, and that was really painful to hear.”

As Arden tried to explain the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgences’ intentions, an off-camera parishioner yelled from the congregation, “there are children here!”

“There are queer children here,” Arden responded.

Discontented voices continued to yell out. Three churchgoers approached the lectern and guide Arden away, as Gareau looks on. Applause rises from the congregation again once Arden is out of sight, and the video ends.

A week later, Paul sent another article to our group chat. The headline read “I’ll kill you’; Man facing charges of threatening to shoot parishioners outside of Bay Village church after Mass was interrupted.”

Paul, Kim and I graduated from St. Raphael’s School together in 2014. Paul and I later came out as teenagers. I attended a public high school, while Paul attended a Catholic high school. Both of us faced a spectrum of homophobic sentiments at St. Raphael’s School and in our respective high schools, so we were relatively reserved in sharing our identities publicly. For instance, I would only disclose my orientation to people who came out to me first, or people that I genuinely trusted.

Paul and I are certainly not the only St. Raphael’s students who now identify as LGBTQ. Since our graduation, I watched as classmates and former students embraced their identities and came out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, non-binary, and transgender despite the anti-LGBTQ environment we were educated in. Revisiting memories of grade school feels difficult for many of us, for a variety of reasons. Central to this was that we were educated under the impression that homosexuality or gender non-conformity was a sin, a flaw of nature, an error to be corrected.

In one queer graduate’s case, “I think I blocked a lot of it out.”

When asked about their reactions to the video of the Pentecost service and the news of the near violence that transpired after, the responses all contained the same sentiment – disappointed, but not entirely surprised.

“I was not surprised, but I was extremely disappointed,” said Anastasia, who graduated from St. Raphael’s in 2016, and is pansexual. “(Homophobia) was something that I thought was always at the school, so it was confirmed for me in the video. Watching it made my stomach drop. I didn’t really want to accept that that’s what happened. What was the most chilling was the applause after Arden was taken from the altar.”

“(Seeing the video) brought back memories. I remember Father Tim didn’t want to answer the questions I had (about homosexuality.) He always would avoid it,” said Kyle, a transgender man who graduated from the school.

Kyle remembers questioning both teachers and religious personnel at St. Raphael’s, mainly about homosexuality and why it was considered a sin. He remembers that while certain priests were direct about homosexuality being a sin, Gareau would often “skirt around the topic.”

“It surprised me a lot, what he was saying,” Kyle said, referring to the video from Pentecost Mass.

Of the former students who I spoke with, there was also a shared conclusion on the way that intolerance towards LGBTQ folks presented in both the classroom and during service at St. Raphael’s, at least while we were attending in the mid-aughts to early 10’s. The issues of homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and trans identities were often avoided, even if questioned by students directly. Major historical and political events, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 made discussions crucial. Even then, teachers and clergy seldom spoke about queerness about in direct terms. I recall vague lessons about sin, marriage, and premarital sex, where phrases like, “some people in this world” were used to refer to members of the LGBTQ community.

“I don’t remember anything ever being positive said about queer people. It was more like, ‘they’re living their life, but we can’t touch them or even talk about them because they’re inhuman to us.’ They always used subhuman speech,” said Anastasia.

One of the most direct discussions on LGBTQ identity that I remember from my time as a student occurred in junior high religion class. In a span of several weeks, our teacher introduced us to the Third Way, a Church-approved solution to issues of homophobia, hatred, and same-sex attraction.

In a thirty minute documentary shown to the class, several LGBTQ Catholics explained how their connection to God was strengthened through celibacy, and that their queerness was a divine challenge imposed by God to test their faith. In class, we used worksheets to define terms such as same-sex attraction, abbreviated to “SSA,” and shared dialogue with the priests who visited our class. This was around the time that I, a thirteen year old, was actively pushing down my queerness, often obsessing over others “finding out” or exposing me. In Church, when we had silent moments of prayer, I was overwhelmed with fear that God knew about the supposedly sinful thoughts I was having.

“I definitely tried to pray the gay away,” said James, a St. Raphael graduate who identifies as non-binary and queer.

For many of the students I spoke with who were assigned female at birth, heterosexual marriage and motherhood or a life of service to the church presented as the two options of a successful, Godly future.

“I didn’t even consider my sexuality until I let go of Catholicism completely because I felt so bound to the one pathway of being a good wife and a good mother to a loving family, which could only look one way at the time,” said Anastasia.

“I was told in third grade, ‘you’re either called to be single, to be married or to be a bride of Christ and to serve in the clergy,’” said Ruby, who graduated with Paul and me. Ruby now identifies as a gender nonconforming lesbian and has a girlfriend.

“I was terrified of being alone forever and not getting to have romantic partnerships. I thought that I was being called to be a nun. I wanted to fight it. I didn’t fit into these other two categories of married or single. I think that growing up, not knowing that being queer could be an option, be that gender non-conforming, be that as women loving women, anything that did not fit into those traditional three options, led me to live in fear of this inevitability of eternal loneliness, and that everything that I did that was not feeding into those paths was sinful,” she said.

While some of my classmates realized their queerness in early childhood or adolescence, some did not come out until their twenties. Lack of access to information and vocabulary on queer identities, relationships, and families was a large contributor to this. Fear of isolation or ostracization from family units and friend groups was another contributing factor.

“When I first heard somebody describe being trans as feeling like you were born in the wrong body, I was like, ‘holy shit, they’re talking about me.’ I was probably in the eighth grade, but I was like, ‘it’ll go away if I just push it to the side,’ so I didn’t come out,” said Kyle, who came out as trans in 2021, while in college.

New Catholic school policies in Cleveland oppose queer and trans identity

On August 30, 2023, the Diocese of Cleveland published the “Catholic Diocese of Parish & School Policy on Issues of Sexuality and Gender Identity,” which outlines a list of new restrictions and policies that apply to all offices, parishes, parish schools, and diocesan schools of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, including their employees, personnel, volunteers, students, and youth participating in parish/institutional faith formation.

The laws prohibit the use of preferred pronouns, names that “used when addressing a person experiencing gender dysphoria or gender confusion… obscure or contradict the person’s God-given biological sex,” or restrooms of one’s choice. The policy prohibits transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams, but extends transgender boys more flexibility due to Title IX. Symbols of LGBTQ pride such as the rainbow flag are forbidden. Students, faculty, staff, and other personnel will face repercussions for socially or medically transitioning.

“Persons who choose to openly express disagreement with Church teaching on matters of sex, sexuality, and /or gender in an inappropriate or scandalous way…may be subject to restrictions on his or her participation in the life of the institution or, in appropriate cases, to disciplinary action, both for that person’s own good and/or the good of others,” the document reads.

The policies mandate parental notification if a student under the age of 18 is suspected of experiencing gender dysphoria, confusion, or “same-sex attraction.”

According to the document, signed by both Bishop Edward C. Malesic and Chancellor Vincent Gardiner, “the fact that a parent or guardian might refuse to utilize preferred pronouns at odds with their child’s God-given biological sex or to otherwise refuse to treat their child in any manner inconsistent with their God-given biological sex is not abuse and is not a compelling reason to not disclose.”

If the institution suspects potential child-abuse upon disclosure, the institution is encouraged to consult with the Diocese Legal Office and the Bishop’s designated moral theologian.

Another policy forbids same-sex dates or expressions of romantic attraction at mixers and dances. Students are encouraged to attend such events with a platonic companion or a group of friends. Despite feeling heartbroken and upset for the queer youth of the Cleveland diocese, this point brought back a glorious memory of attending an all-boy’s school prom with Kim, Paul and his group of gay friends in 2018. We stiffly slow danced to Ed Sheeran in the ballroom of a Cleveland hotel and danced like children high off of sugar while straight couples covertly grinded to clean versions of top 40 pop.

Arden, who did not attend St. Raphael’s School but was very active in the parish through Parish School of Religion (PSR) and Catholic Youth Ministry, is still very much a Catholic, but not just a Catholic. Arden is also on track to become an ordained Presbyterian minister. They host a podcast, “Blessed Are the Binary Breakers,” that explores the intersection of queerness and holiness through conversations with people from various religions and faiths.

“My queerness is very much tied to my faith and my sense of vocation,” said Arden. “A huge part of being queer is about using my queerness to bear good fruit in the world, to use this sort of biblical expression.”

Before my conversation with Arden, the concept of celebrating queerness through the lens of Catholic faith was something I scarcely encountered. Many of the queer people I grew up with departed from the faith, myself included, because of the discomfort and shame we felt. Before meeting Arden, I did not know that one could embrace their queerness and Catholicism at once– it had always presented as choosing one path over the other.

Raised in the Catholic faith, Arden’s own journey of queer realization extended from late-childhood to their college years. “I think growing up queer and Catholic was very much defined by absences and the gaps in my understanding of myself, and getting the sense that something was off, but not really ever being able to put my finger on it,” they said.

“I did not have any inkling that I was queer in any way, until my sophomore year of college. I did not know that being trans was a thing you could be, let alone being non-binary. Once I did realize my queerness in college, it became my faith foundation,” Arden said.

In conversations with the group of queer former students, some discussed the shared experience of occasionally fearing for our souls. However, Kyle, who no longer subscribes to a particular faith but identifies more broadly as spiritual, has always believed that God would be accepting of queer identities.

“I never really thought I was gonna go to hell,” Kyle said. “But hearing people say it still f-ks you up, you know?”

Arden attended public schools and, outside of PSR, educated themself on the faith. They gravitated towards Saints like Joan of Arc, who was executed by the English for heresy, witchcraft and dressing in mens’ clothing.

Under the Cleveland Diocese’s new rules, which require persons to dress “consistent with their God-given biological sex,” St. Joan of Arc would potentially face repercussions for failing to honor her “God-Given human-nature” and for “causing confusion or scandal.”

Arden’s final visit to St. Raphael’s Church

Arden’s connection to the St. Raphael’s parish developed over decades. They were an altar server at Masses throughout middle and high school, and continued to serve when they returned to the parish during breaks in college.

“I would altar-serve because I like doing it and I found it really meaningful. So that meant that even as I was discovering I was queer and dating my then-roommate, who is now my wife, I was also altar-serving at St. Raphael’s,” they said.

Before enrolling in seminary and beginning the process of Presbyterian ordination, Arden wanted to tell someone at St. Raphael’s Church that they were queer.

“I had decided that I was going to go to seminary and pursue becoming a pastor. For my own sort of sense of closure, I really wanted to tell someone at St. Raphael, but I was too chicken to tell someone who knew me, even to (tell someone) face to face,” they said. “That summer when I was at home, I went to Confession. I chose the priest that did not know me at all. I said I was gay, and keeping it simple, that I had a girlfriend that I was planning to marry and that I was a Presbyterian now.”

Arden said that although the priest reacted well to their disclosure, they were frustrated that he wanted to discuss their mental health.  Arden remembers the priest asking, “if (being gay) is okay, why does it lead to so much depression and suicide?” “Maybe it’s the people being bigots who give us depression,” Arden said.

Despite that, Arden remembers the remainder of the interaction going well, and that the priest “said everything I needed him to,” that “no matter what you do, God will always love you. And you’ll always have a place in the Catholic Church and at St. Raphael.”

Arden refers to their separation from St. Raphael as feeling “messy.” They continued to attend mass at the Church whenever they were in town visiting family, which is what brought them to Pentecost services on May 28th. They said that homesickness drew them back to the parish, and fond memories of worshiping there in their youth.

“I was able to connect to the Divine, worshiping at St. Raphael growing up, in a way that is different from the way I’m able to connect now, because it was simpler. Not necessarily better, but just simpler.”

Now, Arden feels as though they cannot return.

“Now I know I can’t go back there at all. I feel like someone would probably try to kick me out,” they said.

Arden was frustrated at the media response and viral attention that the video garnered. “The reason I did what I did was for the people in that room, and not for the internet,” they said.

They said that when Gareau, who was recently assigned to a new parish, began speaking about groups “defaming the Catholic faith,” their heart dropped. To Arden, it was clear that Gareau was referring to the queer community as a whole, and not just one specific queer organization.

Arden was also frustrated by Gareau’s choice to not name the group he was referring to. In the video of the homily, the priest states, “I don’t want to give these people a name.” In the same way that the topics of queerness and gender identity were avoided and only alluded to back in school, the group that Gareau referred to was left to the imagination of the audience.

“The implication that there’s something so dirty or sinister about (queerness) that you can’t even be straightforward with your speech about it, that’s what has been the painful thing. For him to talk about them without even saying who he was talking about, or giving people the context to know what he’s talking about is what made me upset,” Arden said.

As they listened to the homily, Arden grappled with the choice to walk out in protest or speak out against what they called “an enforced silence.”

“I decided to get up and say something,” they said. “It was scary, but it felt necessary.”

Their main goals in interrupting the Mass were to inform Gareau that what he said was hurtful, and to communicate to the people in the pews that felt alienated.

“There were a few hundred people there. Someone there is queer, whether they’re an adult who is queer, or a kid who’s looking forward to getting out of church as soon as they can, but their parents made them go,” said Arden. “There will always be queer people anywhere you are. I just had to make sure that they knew they weren’t alone, and I knew I wouldn’t get a chance outside of Mass to reach all of them.”

After parishioners removed Arden from the lectern, they left the building. In the campus’ front yard, there is a statue of the Virgin Mary. In May, St. Raphael’s students celebrate May Crowning, a holy ritual of placing a wreath of flowers on Mary’s head, here. Arden went there for a moment of prayer. In the deep recesses of my phone, there is a photo of Paul and I after our eighth grade baccalaureate mass, squinting in the bright afternoon sun in front of the very same statue.

After praying, they realized that a man followed them outside. At first, Arden was afraid, but they quickly learned that the person followed them out in solidarity. His wife joined him shortly after, and thanked Arden for speaking up.

According to Arden, after speaking with the couple for five minutes, William Ruda came “storming out of the building and was yelling at us to get off the property.” At that point, Arden wanted to leave, but the couple stood their ground and verbally defended them. According to Arden, Ruda seemed to believe that the married couple were Arden’s parents. Ruda proceeded to verbally accost the group, and eventually threatened to beat and shoot them.

According to, Arden, the married couple, and a Bay Village Police Officer stated that Ruda threatened to physically assault them before threatening to shoot them. Bay Village Auxiliary Lt. Tim Colburn told “he was shoved by Ruda and heard him yell, “‘I’ll beat your a–, I’ll blow your f—ing head off, I’ll kill you.’”

St. Raphael’s School closed for the last week of school out of security concerns for their students after this event. Ruda has several criminal misdemeanors, according to Rocky River Municipal Court records.

Gareau will be leaving St. Raphael’s Church in November, and moving to St. Colette Catholic Church in Brunswick, Ohio, after over two decades of service at St. Raphael’s Parish. This move was requested by Cleveland’s Bishop Edward C. Malesic. The Archdiocese of Cleveland stated that this request, as well as Gareau’s decision to take on a new assignment, was “completely unrelated to the May incident.”

Arden says that they reached out to Gareau via email after the event in attempts to further explain why they interrupted Mass. They received a response co-written by St. Raphael’s priests who declined Arden’s request for further dialogue. In the meantime, several priests, one Roman Catholic, reached out to Arden to show support and ask questions about supporting LGBTQ+ parishioners.

Despite the anti-gay themes that prevailed in our education, in the community, and from our faculty, dozens of St. Raphael alumni identify as LGBTQ. This population, which has spread out across the country, proves that queer identity is an unshakeable force of nature. It is a deep-rooted, sometimes innate, sense of perseverance and an inability to compromise one’s authentic self that has kept the queer community alive from the dawn of time, even when our stories were not recorded or celebrated.

In the face of new policies that will harm, out, and silence queer youth, it is important to recognize that fear, bullying, and threats, even from the Catholic Church, have never successfully erased our existence.

Ava O’Malley is a Cleveland-born writer living in Chicago, IL. O’Malley graduated with her bachelor’s in journalism and Spanish from DePaul University in June, 2022, and is continuing on as a Master’s in Writing and Publishing student at the same university. Her writing, which spans creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry and reporting, often focuses on queer identity, spirituality, and memory.